The Absolute is often referred to as an ocean of compassion, who is ready to forgive and rush to the rescue of a distressed devotee. However, the Absolute is glorified for yet another vital characteristic – fairness. How does the Absolute choose between compassion and fairness, and is the choice always one of the two? For instance, what happens when a devotee wrongs? Does the Absolute forgive from boundless compassion because the perpetrator is a devotee, or does the Absolute punish the devotee from a fairness point of view? Does meting out punishment necessarily translate to a lack of compassion?
When compassion and fairness thus seemingly vie with one another for expression, the externalization of either traits rests upon an exemplary attribute of the perpetrator of one perpetrated against. This quandary is made apparent in the episode of the Śrīmadbhāgavata where sage Durvāsā goes up against king Ambarīṣa.
Ambarīṣa was a king of the solar dynasty, known for his nobility. His rule extended over all seven continents of the world, and his prosperity was staggering. However, he was neither swayed by power nor by wealth, for he understood them both to be fickle. He was a great devotee of lord Viṣṇu and had exceptional regard for pious men. Ambarīṣa imbued every living moment with either service to the lord or to contemplation of him. His rule too reflected his humility and dedication to dharma. Pleased with Ambarīṣa’s devotion, sense of justice and detachment, lord Viṣṇu offered the king his discus, the Sudarśana, for protection against inimical forces.
Ambarīṣa’s most diligent form of worship was his scrupulous observance of the dvādaśī-vrata. On the morning of dvādaśī or the twelfth day of the fortnight, Ambarīṣa and his noble wife would bathe in the sacred waters of the Yamunā, worship lord Viṣṇu, offer riches and cows to noble brāhmaṇa, feed holy men and then break their fast. On one of the dvādaśī in the sacred month of Kārtika, Ambarīṣa and his queen proceeded to fulfill their sacred vow as usual. Just as they were about to break their fast, sage Durvāsā arrived before them. Delighted by the arrival of so worthy a guest, Ambarīṣa hastened to extend the sage a ceremonial welcome. Ambarīṣa then offered the sage a seat, prostrated before Durvāsā and requested him to partake of his noon-meal with the king. The sage accepted the invitation graciously and said to the king that he would complete his midday rituals in the Yamunā before partaking of the meal.
Durvāsā proceeded to the Yamunā, took an afternoon dip in the river and then remained immersed in water, contemplating the Supreme. Hours rolled by with Durvāsā thus engrossed in thoughts of the Absolute, until only a muhūrta of dvādaśī remained. The king grew anxious with the delay, for he had to break his fast before dvādaśī lapsed, and he could break his fast only after having fed the invited guest. Finding himself on the horns of a dilemma, Ambarīṣa conferred with learned men to understand whether he should wait for his guest, or should complete the observance as dictated by the scriptures. Ambarīṣa was advised to break his fast with a sip of water and then to await his guest before partaking of his meal. Relieved that there was an elegant solution to his quandary, Ambarīṣa broke his fast as recommended.
The sage soon reached Ambarīṣa’s presence and upon recognizing that the king had already broken his fast, grew furious. He cried, “atrocious indeed is the transgression of this man, who is puffed up with the pride of wealth. He has not an iota of devotion to the lord and behaves like he is law unto himself.” His frame shaking with fury, the sage then plucked a lock of hair from his head and flung it at Ambarīṣa. A horrifying creature emerged from the lock and charged at Ambarīṣa, sword at the ready to strike. Ambarīṣa did not budge an inch. His hands clasped reverentially, he stood there calmly, resigned to the will of the Supreme. However, the discus of lord Viṣṇu that had been appointed as Ambarīṣa’s guardian by the lord himself, was stirred to action. It reduced the horrifying fiend to cinders like a forest fire would a serpent.
Durvāsā who bore witness to this astonishing feat, grew alarmed, and took to his heels. He was however, pursued by the fiery discus, no matter where he proceeded. Failing to find shelter anywhere, Durvāsa, resorted to the realm of lord Brahmā, seeking the protection of the creator. Lord Brahmā responded that he was powerless to protect one who had offended the devotee of the lord. Abandoned thus by Brahmā, sage Durvāsā hurried towards Śivaloka, pleading with lord Śiva to protect him. When lord Śiva too expressed his inability to protect Durvāsā, the sage was left with no choice but to surrender to lord Viṣṇu. Sage Durvāsā rushed to Vaikuṇṭha and besieged the lord to stall his fiery discus. Lord Viṣṇu said in response, “I am not a free agent, sage. I am subject to the desires and wellness of my devotees.” The lord continued,
मयि निर्बद्धहृदयाः साधवः समदर्शिनः।
वशीकुर्वन्ति मां भक्त्या सत्स्त्रियः सत्पतिं यथा॥
mayi nirbaddhahṛdayāḥ sādhavaḥ samadarśinaḥ|
vaśīkurvanti māṁ bhaktyā satstriyaḥ satpatiṁ yathā||
“Their hearts engrossed in me, their eyes looking upon everyone alike, the noble ones bind me with devotion as a noble wife does her husband.
I will give you a solution, however. Resort to Ambarīṣa himself. Seek his pardon and regain peace.” Urged thus by lord Viṣṇu, sage Durvāsā returned to the presence of Ambarīṣa and sought his forgiveness. He fell prostrate at the feet of the king, thereby shocking him. Abashed and pained at heart, the king began appealing to the discus of lord Viṣṇu, “O’ protector of the world, you are given to pardoning the offense of those who seek refuge in thee. If the Supreme lord is pleased with my service to him, perceiving him in everything that stands created, then may this sage be saved from this ominous predicament.”
The fiery discus of the lord lost its fury instantaneously, much to the relief and amazement of Durvāsā. The grateful sage said to Ambarīṣa, “what is impossible for true devotees who have won over the Supreme Being with devotion? King, I have been blessed by you today. You have pardoned my offense and have saved my life.” Abashed, Ambarīṣa fell prostrate at the feet of the sage and entreated him to partake of his meal. The sage did as requested and took leave of the king, after showering his choicest blessing upon the king.
Durvāsā was a great sage who had performed immense penance and had thus earned the grace of the Supreme. Ambarīṣa, however, was imbued with love for all of creation. His penance was perceiving the Supreme in all created beings, and therefore harboring no ill will towards anything. His extraordinary love for the Supreme became the reason behind lord Viṣṇu’s lack of overt compassion to Durvāsā, although the sage too was a devotee and had surrendered unto him. The selfless and exemplary devotion of Ambarīṣa forced the Supreme to appear partisan. However, it must be understood that being partisan was merely an appearance. The lord was covertly compassionate to Durvāsā by having him turned away, for the sage needed to be taught that lesson. Ambarīṣa’s extraordinary devotion elicited an overt exhibition of compassion in forcing the lord to turn away a great sage such as Durvāsā. Ādi Śaṅkara describes the nature of such Bhakti in the Śivānandalaharī thus –
अङ्कोलं निजबीजसन्ततिरयस्कालोपलं सूचिका
साध्वी नैजविभुं लता क्षितुरुहं सिन्धुः सरिद्वल्लभम्।
प्राप्नोतीह यथा तथा पशुपतेः पादारविन्दद्वयं
चेतोवृत्तिरुपेत्य तिष्ठति सदा सा भक्तिरित्युच्यते॥
aṅkolaṁ nijabījasantatirayaskālopalaṁ sūcikā
sādhvī naijavibhuṁ latā kṣituruhaṁ sindhuḥ saridvallabham|
prāpnotīha yathā tathā paśupateḥ pādāravindadvayaṁ
cetovṛttirupetya tiṣṭhati sadā sā bhaktirityucyate||
That is bhakti which inextricably causes the heart to veer towards the lotus-feet of the lord, much like the seeds of the Aṅkola tree that adhere to its trunk, a needle that is drawn to a magnet, a noble wife to her husband, and the river inexorably to its lover, the ocean.